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Capitals vs. Lightning: PHT’s 2018 Eastern Conference Final preview

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How much of an underdog can you be when you won your division, and done so by a significant margin?

In the case of the Washington Capitals, it seems like you could be a genuine underdog. Really, they sure felt like one against the Pittsburgh Penguins, too, despite being a higher seed with home-ice advantage.

It was probably a refreshing change of pace for the Capitals to be less of a juggernaut, and that will certainly carry over against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

By going 54-23-5 with 113 standings points, the Lightning finished with the best record in the East, generating eight more than the Capitals. After missing the playoffs thanks to a bumpy, injury-ravaged 2016-17 season, the Lightning justified all of the optimism surrounding this roster … and more.

Neither the Capitals (two six-game series) nor the Lightning (two five-game series) have faced elimination so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To advance to the championship round, it’s quite likely that they’ll face their greatest tests yet.

SCHEDULE

OFFENSE

Capitals: Washington has scored 43 goals so far in 12 postseason games, a slightly higher per-game rate (3.58) than Tampa Bay (3.50). They’re generating a healthy 32.8 shots on goal per contest. Via Natural Stat Trick, Washington’s generated a robust 110 high-danger chances at even-strength so far during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Through 12 games, the Capitals’ highest-scoring forwards are three players you’d expect: Alex Ovechkin (eight goals, 15 points), Evgeny Kuznetsov (14 points, seven goals including the OT tally that ended Pittsburgh’s season), and Nicklas Backstrom (10 assists, 13 points despite missing Game 6 against the Penguins).

Washington’s forward balance should return to its impressive form now that Tom Wilson‘s suspension is over and especially if Backstrom is healthy.

Lightning: Thus far, the Lightning are the scary mix of high-end offense (Nikita Kucherov leads them with 12 points after a 100-point regular season) and dangerous depth (three players with at least a point-per-game). They’re right up there with the Capitals and Golden Knights as teams averaging at least 3.5 goals each contest. They’ve scored 35 goals in 10 games.

They’ve generated 73 high-danger chances versus just 52 allowed.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. During the season, Tampa Bay scored 290 goals while Washington generated 256. The Bolts are a more versatile scoring machine than the Capitals, especially with the Caps dealing with a little more attrition.

If the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs are any indication, this battle is closer than those regular season numbers would make you think.

[Capitals vs. Lightning: Three questions facing each team]

DEFENSE

Capitals: The Caps have allowed 32 goals and given up 30.2 shots per contest during the playoffs, so they’ve been winning those battles. They’ve given up as many high-danger chances (110) as they’ve generated.

John Carlson rounds out the Capitals’ group of four players who are in the double-digits in points with 11, and he’s unlikely to relent as he tries to beef up an already impressive contract year. Carlson’s also a workhorse for Washington (26:44 TOI average) along with Matt Niskanen (26:52) and Dmitry Orlov (25:31). While Orlov and Niskanen aren’t lighting up the scoreboard like Carlson, they’ve been key pieces, with Orlov and Niskanen carrying a difficult workload against Sidney Crosby. It will be fascinating to see whether Barry Trotz prefers sending out Niskanen and Orlov against the Stamkos or Point lines.

Lightning: Tampa Bay’s allowed just 25 goals in 10 games, 10 fewer than they’ve generated so far during the postseason. Makes sense since they’ve won eight of 10 games, yet it’s another reminder that the Lightning have been a buzzsaw. Again, they’ve limited dangerous chances as well as any team in the postseason.

There is quite a bit of talent on this blueline. Victor Hedman is the obvious headliner as a playoff-proven, Norris-quality performer. The Lightning eventually managed to slow down the Bruins’ terrifying top line, and a lot of that credit goes to Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman. Mikhail Sergachev continues to be a scoring threat on defense even as they ease him into the mix.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. Despite scoring 34 more goals than Washington in 2017-18, the Lightning allowed four fewer (234 to the Caps’ 238). They’re generally able to create a ton of high-danger chances while keeping such dangerous threats moderate-to-low. If you could only pick one defenseman in this series, just about anyone would choose Victor Hedman. Tampa Bay has lock-down options and depth at the position, with McDonagh looking quite good lately.

The Capitals have absorbed some painful losses on offense and defense, but they play in a strong defensive system with Trotz. They’re unlikely to give up many easy chances when Matt Niskanen is on the ice. Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson can create offense, and some depth options like Michal Kempny have really improved their balance. Washington’s defense is pretty solid; Tampa Bay’s is just better.

GOALTENDING

Capitals: After regaining the Capitals top job after Philipp Grubauer‘s early postseason struggles, Braden Holtby is looking a lot like the guy who was putting up some of the best goalie numbers over the past few years, with the added bonus of overcoming the Penguins this time around.

 So far during this postseason run, Holtby generated an 8-3-0 record and .926 save percentage. It’s funny yet very “hockey” that his most rewarding playoff run comes after his first rocky regular season in some time (34-16-4 but with a mediocre .907 save percentage).

One nice thing Washington enjoys that few teams can match is employing a quality backup. While Grubauer struggled in his audition as the top guy, his excellent regular season shouldn’t be disregarded. If something happens to Holtby, the Caps have a nice Plan B.

Lightning: Fatigue and a bumpy finish to the regular season took much of the air out of Andrei Vasilevskiy‘s Vezina campaign, but it makes sense that he managed to be a finalist.

After going 44-17-3 with a .920 save percentage and eight shutouts, Vasilevskiy’s been steady in the playoffs, raising his save percentage to .927. He’s been a strong playoff performer overall when he’s managed to get the chances, as his career mark is a lofty .923 in 22 games.

Tampa Bay’s backups are unproven at best, and a real problem at worst, so it’s probably Vasi-or-bust.

ADVANTAGE: Lightning. This is extremely close. Let’s not forget, however, that Holtby was sputtering and losing his top job just a month ago. With their postseason numbers so close, Vasilevskiy’s superior regular season gives him the slight edge.

This category’s another tough call, though, for two reasons: 1) Holtby is really good and is an experienced, proficient playoff goalie and 2) Grubauer gives Washington a much better backup option if something happens.

In other words, this situation could change if Vasilevskiy stumbles or someone stumbles into him and he ends up with an injury.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Capitals: The Capitals’ 13 power-play goals leads the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and their impressive 30.9 percent success rate ranks second (and first among teams that are still in the mix). Washington’s man advantage has been stout for ages now, and Alex Ovechkin continues to be one of the NHL’s singular special teams threats from “his office.”

Washington’s PK killed just under 80 percent of its opponents chances (79.1 percent), slightly lower than the Caps’ regular season success rate of 80.3 (which was middle-of-the-pack). They’ve allowed nine power-play goals during this postseason, with five of them coming during Games 3-5 of the Penguins series.

Overall, special teams seem to be a healthy net-positive for Washington.

Lightning: Tampa Bay has as many power-play goals (10) as playoff games played so far. They’ve generated a PPG on 26.3 percent of their chances; about the only downside of this unit is that it allowed two shorthanded goals. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov’s cross-ice passes simply must be stopped, as their work is right up there with the threat of Ovechkin’s wheelhouse. The Bolts’ PP was deadly during the regular season, too.

Tampa Bay gave up eight power-play goals without generating any shorthanded tallies through 10 postseason contests, killing 74.2 percent of their penalties taken.

Generally speaking, the Lightning’s PK has been a rare area of relative weakness, as they struggled during the regular season, too.

ADVANTAGE: Capitals. These two teams feature power plays that can both take over a series. Washington’s enjoyed better all-around work this postseason, with a PK that seems more reliable.

As with every category, it’s close.

X-FACTORS

Capitals: The Capitals were able to eliminate the Penguins in Game 6 despite Nicklas Backstrom’s absence, but if their criminally underrated center isn’t good to go during this series, there could be problems. The Lightning boast Stamkos and Point, so having two quality centers would really help. At this point, Backstrom’s health is a real question. That could be a make-or-break factor in Washington’s chance to hang in this series.

Lightning: Andrei Vasilevskiy’s looked like he’s back in form after acknowledging fatigue during the regular season, a lot like his goalie counterpart Braden Holtby. That said, the Lightning haven’t exactly faced adversity during this run, dispatching both opponents in just five games. If Washington starts to get to Vasilevskiy, will his confidence fade?

PREDICTION

Lightning in six games. Tampa Bay has been tearing through its opponents, including an impressive (if banged-up) Bruins team. Washington possesses balance that the Bruins and Devils arguably lacked are built to give the Bolts some headaches. The Lightning have at least a little, often a lot, of everything you’d hope for in a contender; they’re likely to end the Capitals’ post-Penguins honeymoon with cruel precision.

MORE:
Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT 2018 Conference Finals Roundtable
PHT predicts NHL’s Conference Finals
NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Day at Ovechkin’s office: Capitals edge Rangers in OT

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The Washington Capitals outlasted the New York Rangers in what was largely a game of inches and lethal power-play units.

Matt Niskanen ultimately notched the difference-maker in Washington’s 4-3 overtime win as the Capitals ended a losing streak at two games. The rebuilding Rangers provided a pretty spirited showing, holding their own as the Capitals generated a modest 38-32 shots on goal advantage.

Here’s that Niskanen game-winner:

Each power-play unit went 2-for-4 on Wednesday, with the Capitals taking advantage of the “Death and Taxes” certainty of Alex Ovechkin scoring from “his office.” Both of Ovechkin’s power-play goals came from almost the exact same spot, with the main difference being that the second one caught Henrik Lundqvist a bit more by surprise (in part because he shot low).

John Carlson ranked as one of the Capitals’ standout performers in this win, generating one goal and two assists.

The Rangers enjoyed strong nights from their own first line, as both Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider authored one-goal, one-assist performances while creating plenty of other chances. (Jesper Fast was also busy, although he failed to generate any points.)

Circling back to that “game of inches” point, consider that Washington barely avoided a goal, as Christian Djoos saved the day early on:

While Ovechkin was close to nabbing yet another hat trick:

The Rangers and Capitals approach the 2018-19 season with very different expectations, yet each team saw their veteran goalies manage some nice stops, enjoyed strong nights from their top guns, and generally put on a nice show on NBCSN.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Will NHL reduce Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension?

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Tom Wilson will get a chance to state his case to reduce his 20-game suspension via an appeal hearing with the NHL on Thursday, a process Bob McKenzie discusses in the video above this post’s headline.

To catch you up to speed, note that this is part of the appeal process where Wilson brings his case to Gary Bettman. After that, Wilson also has the option to bring his case to an independent arbitrator.

Wednesday’s New York Rangers – Washington Capitals game represents the sixth of 20 games. Note that Wilson loses more than $60K for every game he’s suspended for, so a reduction in his sentence could mean a lot of dough for the polarizing hitter.

What are his chances of getting a lighter punishment, then? As McKenzie notes, they aren’t great, particularly when it comes to Bettman cutting down a suspension.

That said, there are two cases worth noting:

  • Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian HossaIn July 2012, Wilson-like hitter Torres saw a 25-game suspension fall to 21 games for his check on Marian Hossa. This is probably the most directly comparable situation, at least when you consider the types of hits and the rap sheet for the players involved.
  • In June 2014, Dan Carcillo saw an “abuse of official” suspension reduced from 10 games to six.

Now, a neutral arbitrator might be more likely to ease the duration of Wilson’s suspension. Consider these two cases, which aren’t necessarily directly comparable:

All things considered, it’s easy to see why Wilson would go through this process. It’s quite plausible that he’ll get back into the lineup sooner and lose less money from the suspension, even if it’s not fair to call the possibility “likely.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Bruins visit Flames on NBCSN

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The NBCSN Wednesday night doubleheader continues with the Calgary Flames hosting the Boston Bruins at 9:30 p.m. ET. You can watch that game online by clicking here

Two hot teams face off to wrap up tonight’s NBCSN games, as the Bruins carry a four-game winning streak into Calgary (facing a Flames squad that’s won three of four).

This contest shouldn’t be short on star power, as these squads pit two of the best top lines in the NHL against each other, while each team also has some nice complimentary pieces. If that wasn’t enough, Brad Marchand and Matthew Tkachuk are almost certain to ruffle feathers with their obnoxious, antagonistic ways.

The Flames and Bruins don’t meet all that often, so it should be a treat to watch these two interesting teams on Wednesday.

What: Boston Bruins at Calgary Flames
Where: Scotiabank Saddledome
When: Wednesday, October 17th, 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Bruins-Flames stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

Projected Lineups

Boston Bruins

Brad Marchand — Patrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak

Joakim NordstromDavid KrejciJake DeBrusk

Ryan DonatoDavid BackesAnders Bjork

Chris WagnerSean KuralyNoel Acciari

Zdeno CharaCharlie McAvoy

John MooreBrandon Carlo

Matt GrzelcykKevan Miller

Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask

[WATCH LIVE – 9:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Calgary Flames

Johnny GaudreauSean MonahanElias Lindholm

Matthew Tkachuk — Mikael BacklundMichael Frolik

Sam BennettMark JankowskiJames Neal

Garnet HathawayDerek RyanAustin Czarnik

Mark GiordanoTJ Brodie

Noah Hanifin — Rasmus Andersson

Juuso ValimakiMichael Stone

Starting goalie: Mike Smith

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Contract talks: Nylander and Leafs meet; Rinne’s future with Predators

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Update: The Ducks announced a three-year contract for Nick Ritchie tonight, so scratch one name off the list.

***

Hockey insider Bob McKenzie swung by the NBCSN studio on Wednesday, covering multiple bases. As you can see in the video above this headline, McKenzie provided an array of contract-related updates from around the NHL, so let’s dive in:

William Nylander and the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are scoring goals like a glutton piling a plate high at a buffet, yet they’re missing quality top-six winger William Nylander. It’s far from a simple situation for either side. From Nylander’s perspective, he doesn’t want to leave too much money on the table, considering that Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner may raise the bar with their own second contracts. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs must worry about maintaining enough cap space beyond those three young forwards and John Tavares‘ new deal, plus a big investment in Nylander is especially risky since he doesn’t have the largest sample size of work at the NHL level.

Phew.

As much as Kasperi Kapanen‘s strong early work has eased some of the burden of Nylander’s absence, the bottom line is that the two sides want to get something done. With that in mind, McKenzie and others report that Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas met with Nylander in Switzerland.

It remains to be seen if the two sides made any real progress in these high-stakes contract negotiations, although if nothing else, McKenzie notes that Dubas’ visit could at least ease some of the tensions that come with (literal and figurative) games of telephone.

Plenty of people believe that a “bridge” deal would ultimately be the most likely route for a compromise, but that could change with time, for all we know.

Here are a few factors to consider:

  • Dec. 1 deadline: That’s the NHL deadline for an RFA to sign a contract. If a deal isn’t reached, that player cannot play in the NHL during the 2018-19 season. It’s tough to imagine that being the outcome, although Nylander could conceivably play in the KHL or another league if things get truly nasty.
  • Nylander would be eligible for salary arbitration in the unlikely event that the Maple Leafs only sign him for 2018-19.
  • Nylander, 22, is five seasons away from being eligible for UFA status. That’s worth considering when you ponder how long a “bridge” deal might be.
  • The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun discusses the circumstances (sub required) that could make a trade more likely. (Personally, it’s tough to imagine, but it’s also surprising that the situation keeps dragging on.)

It’s a tough situation – with a lot of ins and outs – yet if the two sides can hammer something out, it could also be worth the headaches.

Nick Ritchie and the Anaheim Ducks

McKenzie provides an update to a far-less-pressing RFA situation, with the tone being optimistic about a deal being struck.

It’s been interesting to see how the beginning of the 2018-19 season could conceivably provide more leverage for both sides. On one hand, the Anaheim Ducks have been able to manufacture wins and standings points with Ritchie on the shelf. On the other, injuries have really left Anaheim with a pretty threadbare group of forwards.

Again, the stakes are profoundly lower there, as Ritchie’s been merely a modest scorer at the NHL level.

Key situations for the Nashville Predators

There were two fascinating situations for Nashville discussed in the video, with two players essentially in opposite phases of their careers.

Pekka Rinne: Some might expect the Predators to accelerate the “passing of the torch” in net from Rinne to Juuse Saros. After all, Saros is 23, has shown serious promise so far in the NHL, and is dirt-cheap at $1.5M per year through 2020-21. There’s a scenario where Saros could provide the Predators with a quality starter at a backup cost, possibly opening up room to keep Nashville’s depth intact. That’s not a terrible concept considering that Roman Josi‘s due a big raise from $4M (which expires after 2019-20), Kevin Fiala‘s rookie deal ends after this season, and Ryan Ellis‘ extension kicks in starting next season.

Reasonable ideas all around, but that might not be Nashville’s path.

McKenzie reports that the Predators hope to get an extension done, and interestingly, it might even be a long-term deal.

The numbers matter, then, from both a financial and years standpoint. Rinne is already 35, so it would be a 35+ deal, making an already risky proposition that much riskier. Such a commitment could really make you sweat if Rinne’s extension carries a cap hit anywhere near his current $7M.

Bringing Rinne back seems fair enough, but we’ll see if the Predators make a shaky gamble.

Eeli Tolvanen: From an established 35-year-old goalie to a still-quite-raw first-rounder from 2017, we have 19-year-old Eeli Tolvanen.

As PHT discussed when Tolvanen was demoted, the Predators prospect has a clause that would allow him to escape to Europe (KHL or otherwise) after he plays in 10 AHL games. McKenzie notes that Tolvanen is playing in his fifth AHL game tonight.

Read more here about the conundrum Nashville faces. Should they bite the bullet and just keep him with the big club, even with some work to be done? If he goes to the KHL, he wouldn’t be able to play in the NHL again this season, according to McKenzie.

***

Again, you can get that rundown in the video above this post’s headline, while this article aims to provide additional insight. McKenzie also discussed Jake Dotchin’s situation with Anaheim (and Tampa Bay), so it’s worth your time to check it out.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.